Review: Columbine, Dave Cullen

On Sunday, after a lovely day curled up under blankets in my pajamas eating and watching films, it occurred to me that it had been ages since I sat down and read a book cover to cover. There are few things I enjoy like I enjoy sitting down with a book and not getting up again until the book is finished. So after I caught up on teh blogz, I went into my living room and–

Well, I went into my living room and watched the Packers game. With the Saints out of it, I’m supporting the Packers for the remainder of the playoffs season. The Packers have an adorable rookie running back, James Starks. More to the point, their back-up quarterback, Matt Flynn, quarterbacked the football game that made me love football, in 2007. I will love him forever and support whatever team he joins for the rest of eternity. (Whenever I say I like a pro football team that isn’t the Saints, someone says “But what about the Saints?” Does this need saying? Obviously I support the Saints above anyone else. But a girl’s got to have a B team. The Packers are my B team.)

But after the Packers game (Packers won), my eye fell on my roommate’s copy of Dave Cullen’s Columbine, which she, along with my other roommate and Book Addiction Heather (Heathers of the world, how do you feel about the film Heathers?), had said was superb. So I picked it up and read it and didn’t get to bed until midnight.

Columbine is a painstaking, detailed journalistic account of the Columbine school shooting in 1999, covering the event itself, the decisions that led to it, and its aftermath. It’s a fast-paced book that attempts, I think quite successfully, to offer a fair, nuanced portrayal of the killers, the victims, the detectives, the school administrators, and the press. Cullen debunks myths and misconceptions about the Columbine shooting, but never without explaining where they came from in the first place (often from shaken-up kids with questionable memories).

I was extremely impressed with this book as a piece of reporting. Cullen acknowledges in his introduction that the misconceptions about Columbine were propagated by the media, and he notes that he was among the first reporters on the shooting, and thus among those who reported things that turned out to be untrue. It would be difficult to make more thorough amends for past errors in fact than Cullen does in writing this book. He is exceptionally thorough on his details, sympathetic to his subjects, and engaging but not voyeuristic in his writing style. Columbine is a wonderful book that you should read.

As far as connecting to the book emotionally, I didn’t so much. This is partly because I decided not to. I (unlike psychopaths, hooray!) have an extraordinarily active amygdala that jumps out of its seat and starts screaming “DANGER DANGER OMG DANGER LOOK OUT EEK DANGER” on the smallest provocation. When I know something is going to be upsetting, I try to give myself some critical distance to avoid stressing out my poor nervy amygdala. I kind of succeeded, but kind of not, as that night I woke up shaking from a nightmare where I was standing at a door waiting for something. That was the whole dream. I was standing in a room a few feet away from a door, and it was terribly frightening.

Partly, though, the emotional connection was lacking for me because Columbine happened a little while before I started paying attention to the news. My political consciousness began with the 2000 presidential election, and anything that happened before then made only the tiniest of ripples on the surface of my mind. I heard the phrase “trench coat mafia” at the time, for instance, but I don’t remember being quite clear on what it meant. I didn’t see any of the scary surveillance footage images, or contemplate the possibility of a shooter at my own school. (The administration must have, though; I just this minute made the causal connection between Columbine and the two or three “shooter-in-the-school” drills we had that year. Huh.) The myths that were being exploded had never taken root in my head in the first place.

If you are ever going to read a book about a national tragedy, it should be And the Band Played On. And then if you’re like, damn, national tragedies are a downer; I’m only ever going to read one more national tragedy book for the whole rest of my life, then that book should be Columbine. Lots of people agree with me, look.

55 thoughts on “Review: Columbine, Dave Cullen

    • Oh, Jackie, it’s wonderful. It’s one of my favorite books of all time, and Randy Shilts, the author, just writes the story really engagingly. I love him.

  1. I haven’t heard of The Band Played On either.

    I thought Columbine was extremely well done. Unfortunately that is the nature of live reporting. Things start happening and reporters have to fill time, so often they are just speculating but of course we are watching the news. And we don’t often get follow up or clarification on earlier theories. This book was great for that.

    • Oh, certainly, I know it would be impossible for reporters to get everything right all the time. And the Band Played On touches on this quite a bit too — it’s about the spread of AIDS in America, and the author, Randy Shilts, is very critical of the way the spread of AIDS was represented (or ignored) by various media. I like it when other people who are not me have gotten things wrong and get taken to account by critical journalists.

  2. I am impressed by the control you exert over your amygdala. Mine controls me completely! Maybe I should send it to Amygdala Assertiveness Training School. Because I too avoid national tragedy books – big big downers!

    • Mine controls me more than I’d like to admit. Hence I also tend to avoid national tragedy books. But you should read And the Band Played On! It’s not freaky-amygdala-stressing national tragedy.

  3. This review is great. I keep getting Columbine out from the library and I don’t read it. I’m not sure why. I will get to it one day. I’ve also looked up And the Band Played On and I will be reading that, thanks for the recommendation.

  4. I loved And The Band Played On SO MUCH. But still, he did get some stuff quite wrong. But I loved it SO MUCH. But still, ….

    Loved this review SO MUCH. (I am sure you did not get anything wrong.)

  5. I really want to read this book, but I think I’ll have to be in the right mood for it. I was exactly politically conscious for Columbine, but I do remember talking about it and watching it on the news. I love sitting down and reading a book straight through, too. I’m sort of planning that for tomorrow, we’ll see how the day goes 🙂

    • Columbine was a great book for sitting down and reading from start to finish — not just because of its readability and fast pace, but also I’m not sure I could take several days of reading it. :p

  6. This book has been on my to-read list for a while. I haven’t heard of And the Band Played On but it looks worthwhile.

    The Oklahoma City bombing and then Columbine were some of the first national events that I remember really sinking into my psyche, so to speak. I mean, I do remember making cards for soldiers in the Gulf War at my afterschool program but I was in second grade and my grasp of what was going on was not all the way there yet.

    • I think we did cards for the Gulf War soldiers, too, but I really had no idea what we were doing. I just thought, hey, soldiers, there’s always soldiers.

      And the Band Played On is worthwhile, but it’s also a really superb book — you wouldn’t believe the story of a spread of disease could be so enthralling.

  7. I thought this book was amazing and it came to my mind last week when the shootings happened here in Arizona. My brother is not a reader, but I got him to read Columbine (granted, he is a police officer and was interested in reading about the law enforcement tactics involved).

    • Yeah, it seems like Columbine’s become the archetypal high-profile shooting that gets referenced every time. Did your brother like the book? (Yes, surely)

    • Ana, you’ll have to love And the Band Played On. It’s amazing. I cannot say enough good things about it. But be warned that once you start it, you will not be able to put it down.

  8. As someone who needs a strong narrative (and finds non-memoir nonfiction much harder to get through than fiction or memoir), I really appreciated the way Columbine moved forward and back in time and changed the focus from the shooters to the aftermath to the media and then back to the details of the incident. It kept my attention and I never got bogged down; I felt like I was in good narrative hands.

    • Same, I like to have a strong clear narrative, in fiction as well as nonfiction, which I know some people look down on. :p Doesn’t mean I won’t read nonfiction that lacks a strong narrative, but it’s not my preference. Columbine did a great job with a flexible, shifting narrative that kept things feeling urgent.

  9. Cullen , who first reported on the story for the online magazine Salon, acknowledges in the book’s source notes that thoughts he attributes to Klebold and Harris are conjecture gleaned from the record the pair left behind.

    Jeff Kass takes a more straightforward approach in “Columbine: A True Crime Story,” working backward from the events of the fateful day.
    The Denver Post

    Mr. Cullen insists that the killers enjoyed “far more friends than the average adolescent,” with Harris in particular being a regular Casanova who “on the ultimate high school scorecard . . . outscored much of the football team.” The author’s footnotes do not reveal how he knows this; when I asked him about it while preparing this review, Mr. Cullen said he did not necessarily mean to imply that Harris was sexually active. But what else would such words mean?

    “Eric and Dylan never had any girlfriends,” the more sober Mr. Kass writes, and were “probably virgins upon death.”
    Wall Street Journal

    • I’ve heard of the Kass book, but I can’t get a copy of it, I’m afraid. My library has a non-circulating copy. When you write a journalistic account — or practically any nonfiction book, I think — you do end up ascribing motives sometimes that you can’t absolutely prove.

  10. Thanks very much, Jenny.

    (And this from Rhaps also gave me a chuckle: “I am impressed by the control you exert over your amygdala.” Haha. I was thinking something similar, but not nearly so funny.)

    I really appreciate the thoughtful read you gave it. And I loved everything you said.

    Thanks to all the nice comments, too. I’m glad the narrative structure worked. That was the hardest part to figure out, by far (in terms of the writing). It took me years to figure out how to build suspense and keep it moving, but also to juggle ten separate storylines. I was still sorting that out when it went to copyediting. I broke up the early chapters (into two per day leading up to the killing) literally the last day before I sent it off.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Dave! The narrative structure was something that struck me in particular — I’m not surprised it was hard to figure out, I was thinking as I read it that it must have been difficult to keep track of.

  11. And for any teacher–or students out there–we’ve had a lot of interest on using the book in school, so we’re trying to make that easier. I spent a good chunk of the fall creating the Columbine Instructor Guide and Columbine Student Guide. They are now online and free. Please consider spreading the word. Thanks.

    I’ve also been writing about the Tucson tragedy, if anyone is interested. I’ll be discussing it on NPR’s Talk of the Nation Monday, sometime after 2 pm ET. And you can watch the segment I did on MSNBC this week at my blog. (All the links above will get you there.)

  12. I am adding this to my TBR list, too. I grew up in Colorado, in Aurora, which isn’t far from Littleton. I was already teaching when this happened. It was so scary. Still is.

    • Oh, gosh, that must have been awful. Did y’all institute school-shooter drillers? I didn’t take them seriously at all at the time, but our teachers really, really must have.

  13. First, yay! for you reading this book and being impressed by it. I loved it.

    Second, when I first heard about the movie Heathers (probably in like 5th grade or so) I was so excited that there was a movie with my name as the title. Then I watched the movie, and got sad because I am not a bitchy Heather (at least, I like to think I’m not). Still a good movie though! 😉

    • Thanks for your review! I would never have picked this up on my own, because I am squeamish and a chicken, but it turned out to be really interesting.

      Your reaction to Heathers is about what I expected. I am always pleased to see Jennys in films, but I get really cross when they are crappy Jennys.

  14. Jenny,

    I’ve been urging everyone who has read Cullen’s book to please give three other books on the same subject a try. And that’s mostly because I fear that the people who have read Cullen’s “Columbine” will think that what Cullen wrote is the absolute truth, that he had all the facts and wrote them down as such. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Columbine” isn’t a horrible book but it is flawed and inaccurate and should not be accepted as the “definitive” book on the subject because it’s anything but.

    There are three other books that have been written about Columbine and while they’re not perfect either, in my opinion they give a more accurate depiction of the events surrounding the attack on Columbine High School. The books are “Comprehending Columbine” by Ralph Larkin, “Columbine: A True Crime Story” by Jeff Kass (a staff writer for Denver’s Rocky Mountain News who has covered the Columbine story since the very beginning) and “No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death At Columbine” by Brooks Brown. The latter is more of a memoir by one of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s classmate and friend. The first two books take a much more in-depth and accurate look than Cullen’s book at what happened at Columbine and why. Larkin’s book in particular makes a very strong case for the fact that indeed Harris and Klebold were bullied during their four years at Columbine and that this was probably a strong factor in why they attacked their school. Cullen would have you believe otherwise because it (the two boys being bullied) doesn’t fit in with his preferred profile of them. So he’s conveniently ignored evidence and recounts of their being bullied by eyewitnesses and simply leaves it out of his book. Larkin and Kass include these facts in their books, and more that Cullen doesn’t.

    It’s my hope that anyone who has read or is contemplating reading Cullen’s book will go on to read the three books that I’ve mentioned. The books will give them a better and more accurate look at what happened at Columbine.

  15. Great review. I didn’t even realize this book existed, and I’d never heard of And the Band Played On, either. See? I live in a fiction-dominated world. But one of my goals this year is to try to remedy that, so I am adding this to my list of non-fiction books to keep in consciousness.

    Also, I love your explanation of separating yourself emotionally from the narrative. I am the same way – suspenseful movies and books just make me squeal – so for true events, it takes a special bit of disconnect to allow myself to get any sleep that week. This is also why I’ve stopped watching Criminal Minds.

    • Add And the Band Played On. I mean it. It’s so, so good, and I have a literary crush on Randy Shilts. He was a good journalist and he was funny and wry in real life and I love him.

      Suspenseful stuff kills me. I’m glad I live in the age of Wikipedia where I can look up what’s going to happen.

  16. I almost purchased this on audible with my monthly credit but then decided against that as I’m not sure I’d be able to listen to this while working out/driving.

    However, And The Band Played On is now on my wishlist as is Columbine, I’ll have to snap it up when it becomes cheaper.

  17. Though this does sound like a really good read, I just finished We Need To Talk About Kevin, and it really, really disturbed me. I would like to read this one as well, but think I am going to need a lot of time before I pick it up because this subject is just so frightening that I can’t deal with it back to back.

    • I have still yet to decide whether I’m going to read We Need to Talk About Kevin. I do looooove an epistolary novel, and fiction about terrible events tends to scare me less than nonfiction.

  18. I came on here to put in a word for We Need To Talk About Kevin (and see that the commenter above also mentions it). I felt that was an extraordinary book. I think though I might only be able to fit one high school massacre novel into my life, and that would have been it. I’m having a tender phase at the moment in my reading – January does that to a person.

    • January sometimes makes me a bit adventurous, and sometimes just the opposite. I’ve already read two high school massacre books in my life, but one of them was Jodi Picoult, so I feel like that one doesn’t really count. :p

  19. Oh, Jenny, how I love your reviews but how I ADORE your tags.

    I have heard nothing but praise for this book. Your ability to keep your amygdala aloof astounds and awes me. I wish I had that around when I was reading Cry, the Beloved Country so that I would not be weeping uncontrollably.

    I am a little astounded that your news-watching only began in 2000. This is because I have no clear idea of your age and then kind of assume that you are around my age. But then I also realized that I have this image of Columbine happening when I was in college, but I was WAY in high school when it happened and probably not paying too much attention to the news at that time, either. Except that so many high school shootings were happening at the time that I kind of felt, as a high school student, that I should take note. So basically, this whole paragraph is basically to point out my complete lack of awareness about time and its passage.

    • My amygdala-control is not always good. Just sometimes, if I have plenty of warning to prepare myself.

      Welllll, I think I’m going to tell myself you’re a bit older than I am, just so that I don’t feel as much like a jerk for waiting so late to start paying attention to the news. :p

  20. What I found as a result of reading this book was that I knew pieces of misinformation provided via the media. For example Michael Moore apparently believed the myth that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went bowling the morning of the massacre. Although non-fiction Cullens writing is so engaging that although I remembered that day and its aftermath pretty well I was transfixed.

    • I think the only thing I vaguely believed from the media coverage was that they were bullied. I’m not sure Cullen makes a convincing case that this didn’t happen, to be honest — I think most kids get bullied to some extent while they’re in school. But the bowling thing, I hadn’t even heard of that. (I’m embarrassed to say.)

  21. Pingback: Around the Bookosphere « Cousins Read

  22. Great review and I am so impressed by the rich discussion that it has prompted!

    Somehow, I cannot bring myself to read Columbine – I don’t want to immerse myself in that kind of hate, pain and trauma even though I know it is an important story to have told.

    I have also heard great things about And The Band Played On – thanks for reminding me about it.

    • I wouldn’t have thought I’d want to read about Columbine either, and I even made a deal with myself I could stop reading the book if I wasn’t into it by fifty pages in. But it turned out to be entrancing. Not as good as And the Band Played On, though! :p

  23. I saw the title and I wasn’t sure at first that it was about the shooting. I, unfortunately, remember the fallout more than the actual event. I was pretty aware of all the “lock-down” drills that our teachers had to walk us through, and the fact that they installed actual, working, locks on all the classroom doors.

    I suppose if I ever have the stomach to confront a national tragedy book, this will be it, though I’m generally traumatized enough by the mere thought of it that reading about it is well out of my capabilities.

    • I can’t remember if we had locks on our classroom doors. Must have done, I guess, since I remember having the drills and the teachers saying we were going to lock ourselves into the classrooms. I liked the phrase “duck and cover”.

      Hey, and if you can’t face reading Columbine, I’m telling you: And the Band Played On. Non-scary (except for how scarily slow the response to the epidemic was) but equally fascinating.

  24. Pingback: Library Loot: 2-2-2011 | A Good Stopping Point

  25. I love that you also bring up And the Band Played On. I’ve read both Columbine and ATBPO, and they’re both amazing. If only Randy Shilts could’ve lived to write a million more books…

  26. Pingback: And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts | A Good Stopping Point

  27. Pingback: Columbine by Dave Cullen Audiobook Review

  28. Pingback: Columbine, by Dave Cullen « Booking It Up!

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